Year of Fear, Chapter 13: How the pandemic is playing in rural Virginia

May 5, 2020

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In comparing rural Virginia and big cities, I am reminded of a man I once interviewed who had grown up in rural Virginia during the Great Depression. I anticipated tales of woe. Instead, he said he had noticed little difference: “We were poor before the stock market crash and poor afterwards.” His family raised and canned fruits and vegetables from their garden, slaughtered a few hogs in the fall, and kept chickens and a single milk cow. 

I am aware of at least three acquaintances around here who have built backyard chicken houses in the past month. 

The threat of COVID-19 exists in rural communities like Caroline County, Virginia, of course, as well as large metropolitan areas, and our lives have changed in many ways since mid-March. Despite this, when I see photos and videos of empty streets in New York, Chicago, Rome, or Paris, it is somewhat difficult for me to relate. In Caroline, with about 30,000 residents spread out over 549 square miles, the changes are not as striking as they are in the big cities. 

My rural delivery mailbox sits on US 1, once the major north-south route from Maine to Florida. From a lawn chair, I can hear almost every car, truck, or motorcycle that passes by. While there are lulls in traffic flow now, that was also true before COVID-19. 

People are still out and about in Caroline County, albeit in fewer numbers than before Governor Ralph Northam closed all public and private schools on March 13 and limited social gatherings to ten people. Executive Order Number 53, which Northam issued on March 24, closed to the public “non-essential businesses,” such as hair stylists, barbershops, spas, and tattoo parlors, and limited restaurants to take-out and delivery. That order was to end on April 23, but has been extended to May 8. 

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The difference between rural Caroline, with 32 COVID-19 cases and one death as of May 1, and New York City, with more than 167,000 cases and 13,000 deaths, is more about lifestyle, geography, and population density than numbers. Caroline had no reported COVID-19 cases until April. That number has increased at an average of slightly more than a case per day since. So far there has been one death, although neighboring King George County, which is less populous and even more rural than Caroline, has had four, the most in the Rappahannock Health District, which includes four counties and the city of Fredericksburg. As of May 1, the district had seen 506 cases and 11 deaths.

ICYMI: Covering science at dangerous speeds

Most Caroline residents are abiding by the COVID-19 laws and guidelines, and most of them wear face masks in public. On visits to my local supermarket during the early-morning seniors-only hour, I observed many masked shoppers. On a rare mid-afternoon trip last week, however, I was appalled at how many people, many of them young, roamed the aisles and conversed in the parking lot without coverings. Perhaps it is provincialism or bravado, but a lot of folks around here appear to be playing the odds on what could prove a deadly game, if not for them, then for others. All too often someone says to me, as they downplay the pandemic, “I don’t know anyone who has even been infected, do you?” It is almost like declaring that the earth must be flat because you don’t know anyone who ventured beyond the horizon and returned to tell about it.

As the weeks of self-distancing continue and balmier spring weather arrives, people are realizing that drastic lifestyle changes are not going away quickly. Many activities have been cancelled, or at least postponed. The May 2 Caroline Spring Festival bit the dust, as will the annual Caroline County Agricultural Fair, scheduled for June 17-20. Ashland’s popular Strawberry Faire, usually held in early June to coincide with berry season, was also cancelled, as were a number of smaller events. 


The economic impact

Meanwhile, many Caroline residents are out of work, and a few have shuttered their small businesses or face severely reduced revenues. In February, Caroline County had a workforce of 15,687, according to the Virginia Employment Commission. Only 513 residents, or 3.3 percent, were classified as unemployed. But during the five-week period as COVID-19 restrictions took effect, 1,452 people from the county applied for unemployment benefits.

Still, generally speaking, Caroline County is weathering the storm better than many other communities. Although county officials have long sought more manufacturing and retail employers, the very fact that we have so few of them may make it easier to survive the next year or two. 

The local school system is the county’s largest employer and teachers and administrators are still being paid. Some money is being saved because the school bus fleet is idle and buildings are dark. Still, many parents must balance homeschooling while trying to work at home. Everyone is enduring some life changes.

The largest private employer is the McKesson Corporation’s warehouse, which distributes pharmaceuticals and healthcare products to hospitals and pharmacies. If any industry is pandemic-proof, that one should be, according to Gary R. Wilson, Caroline’s Director of Economic Development. On the other hand, Wilson also oversees tourism and the outlook there is bleak. “Tourism? Right now it’s a shambles. The state fairgrounds and Kings Dominion is just not happening,” Wilson said, referring to Caroline’s Meadow Event Park and the nearby amusement park in Hanover County. “Right now, we are marketing restaurant takeout to our own citizens and local Ag businesses.” 

There are only three small shopping centers in Caroline County, plus a small downtown shopping district in Bowling Green. Most of the stores and restaurants there are still open, although restaurants are struggling through lean times by offering curbside pickup and delivery. The county’s two supermarkets have been busier than before the COVID-19 pandemic and employees struggle to keep the shelves stocked. Caroline County has few businesses that are deemed “nonessential” by the Governor’s order.

One relatively new employer that is less fortunate is Coastal Sunbelt Produce, which just a little over a year ago took over the warehouse once operated by Russell Stover candies. Coastal Sunbelt’s client base consists of restaurants and resorts, and the parent company has already announced layoffs.

“Unlike several neighbors, our county is not very dependent on sales and meals taxes,” Wilson noted, although he added that Caroline will take a hit from tourism-generated gasoline taxes if things don’t pick up soon. The county has several major truck stops that are still clogged with tractor-trailer rigs—but bereft of cars driven by the usual tourists headed to and from Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia Beach, and the Outer Banks of North Carolina at this time of year.

County Administrator Charles Culley and his staff are scrambling to come up with a workable budget that will go into effect July 1.  “The budget challenge is something everybody is facing,” Culley said. About lost sales tax revenue, he said, “A million dollars at least, and that’s just a guestimate. They are much behind getting reports to the treasurer’s office. You can look at what we normally do and cut back 75 percent and have some idea.” One blessing: The county has a deep reserve fund, Culley pointed out. “People have been wanting to use it over the years and we have resisted. It gives us some buffer. We can pay bills. We will be alright for a while.”

Culley expects little or no help from the state or federal government.

“Historically when the state runs out of money they cut out things,” he said. Virginia is expected to take a big hit from lost taxes on gasoline, and lost retail sales tax and state income tax. State lottery ticket sales decreased dramatically in March and April’s figures are expected to be even lower. 

“Managing through a pandemic is nothing anybody in the management field has ever done,” Culley said.


Who to blame? 

In the first weeks of the pandemic, there appeared to be a relaxation of the political sniping that often is so prevalent on social media. The days wore on and people became more restive, however. 

As criticism in the media of President Trump’s handling of COVID-19 increased, his defenders became more vocal, and criticism of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, ramped up accordingly. Stray volleys at Northam started showing up on local Facebook pages. One referred to “King Ralph’s reign of tyranny.” Another post questioned how Northam could appear so well groomed if barber shops were on the list of nonessential businesses. A story circulated for several days that Northam was sneaking off for holidays at a vacation house on the North Carolina Outer Banks, in defiance of a temporary ban there on non-resident property owners. That charge was actually put to rest by a Republican member of the state legislature. 

Still, the story reappeared in a professionally produced video, put out by a conservative organization called LifeSite, about the “Liberate Virginia” protestors who walked and drove around Capital Square on April 15, honking their horns while the House of Delegates met. This was the second such protest against the governor’s order to keep some businesses closed. It appeared to be attended by a loose mixture of gun enthusiasts, anti-abortion groups, Trump boosters, and a few people whose line of work had been deemed nonessential under the Governor’s edict. 

Generally speaking, Virginians seem to still approve of the governor’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis. The Free Lance-Star of Fredericksburg, a paper often stinting in its praise of Democrats, published an editorial that called Northam the right man for the job. After detailing Northam’s bungling of some issues early in his term, the editorial continued: “Suddenly, the best possible person to have at the state’s helm seems to be an unassuming, well-informed doctor who calmly tells us hard truths, who doesn’t use the pandemic to self-aggrandize, who doesn’t try to lay the blame on others.

Still, the Facebook wars continue. Clearly exasperated by the mean-spirited tone of many posts, Steven B. Tucker, who started a Caroline County, Virginia Residents Facebook page back in 2015 that now has more than 5,000 users, posted the following message on April 20:

“If the Coronavirus has proven anything, it’s that Republicans and Democrats are so partisan, so hateful and suspicious of each other, that they’ve made a virus into a purely political ordeal. 

“Frankly, this virus pales in comparison to our real problems in this country and what’s sad is that nothing, not one damn thing will change. Nothing positive will come out of this. No light at the end of this tunnel. No silver linings. But I bet left-wing and right-wing people will hate each other even more now. We haven’t even begun to get what we deserve.”

Next Week, Chapter 14: Macon, Georgia. The governor trips. The president undermines an incumbent senate candidate. Over a million absentee ballots are requested for the primary—which still isn’t scheduled. In the meantime, the death rate steadily rises.
This project is supported by a gift from the Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism Fund at The New York Community Trust.
Greg Glassner is a Caroline County resident with more than forty years of experience in the newspaper business, the majority of it as editor of community weeklies in Virginia. He was editor of the Herald-Progress in Ashland for eight years, retiring in 2012. He also served as interim editor of the Caroline Progress in Bowling Green for six months in 2015, and wrote a weekly column and feature stories for both papers until they ceased publication in March 2018. A US Army veteran who saw service in Southeast Asia, Glassner is the author of five books, including biographies of US Attorney General William Wirt and Virginia Gov. William “Extra Billy” Smith.